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A STORY ABOUT A REAL MAN                                                                  ^37
But Alexei remembered the pale face pressing against
his in that hour when death howled over their heads, and
he knew that it was not as Kukushkin said. He knew too
that it made the girl's heart ache to read his mournful
confessions. Not even knowing the name of the "meteoro-
logical sergeant", he continued to confide his joyless
reflections to her.
The Commissar was able to find a key to fit every
heart, but so far he had not been able to find one to fit
Meresyev's. On the day after he underwent his operation,
Ostrovsky's How the Steel Was Tempered appeared in
the ward. The book was read aloud. Alexei realised
that this reading was meant for him, but the story brought
him little comfort. Pavel Korchagin had been one of his
boyhood heroes. "But Korchagin was not an airman,"
Alexei reflected now. "Did he know what *yearnmg for
the air' means? Ostrovsky did not write his books in bed
at a time when all the men and -many women of the
country were fighting, when even snotty-nosed boys,
standing on crates because they were not tall enough to
reach the lathes, were turning shells."
To put it short, on this occasion the book was not a
success. So the Commissar tried a flanking movement.
Casually, he began to tell the story of another man
whose legs were paralysed, and who held a big public
post in spite of that. Stepan Ivanovich, who was interested
in everything that happened in the world, gasped with
astonishment, and remembered that where he came from
there was a doctor who only had one arm, but was for
all that the best doctor in the district, rode a horse, loved
to go hunting and handled a gun so expertly that he
could hit a squirrel in the eye. Here the Commissar re-
called the late Academician Williams, whom he had
known personally. That man was half paralysed, could
use only one arm, and yet he directed the work of the
Agricultural Institute and conducted research on a vast
scale.
Meresyev listened and smiled: it is possible to think,
to talk, to write, issue orders, heal people and even go
hunting without legs, but he was an airman, a born air-
man, an airman since boyhood, from the day on which—
when guarding the melon field where among the limp